Helen, who died recently at 95, never actually caught the virus until it was in decline; being fully vaccinated and well cared for, she had only a very mild case — and recovered. But like uncounted millions of seniors — and more than a few younger people — she was a victim of the pandemic.
Helen was a social creature. Her retirement community ran a weekly bus to the grocery store, but that didn’t work for Helen. The bus returned in an hour, by which time she had only begun her visits with the produce guy and the butcher, the shelf-stockers and the check-out lady. Her son-in-law drove her to the store and worked on his laptop until she finished.
“We’re not supposed to walk in the halls,” Helen reported during the worst of times. We had cross-country phone visits several times a week, but I was seldom able to cheer her up.
Living is interacting with fellow creatures. Even the four-legged kind. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA,) more than 23 million Americans adopted a pet during the pandemic; most of them are still with their newfound families. Depression among the elderly, though, even those with pets, was rampant.
One 80-something friend’s depression became so grave that her children — all of whom lived in other states — insisted she videoconference with her physician. He prescribed medication, but it was only minimally successful. “I’ve just lost any will to live I had,” she told me over the phone. “I’m not suicidal, but I go to sleep every night hoping not to wake up. We have no idea how long this lockdown is going to last.” Happily, she outlasted the pandemic and is shopping and lunching with friends (while staying on her meds). That puts her among the lucky ones.
For the frail, sick, or elderly, the pandemic was particularly punishing. Already suffering, additional isolation only made everything worse. Some, though, came up with creative solutions:
Two casual friends in a San Francisco retirement community had apartment doors across the hall from each other. They formed the habit of opening their doors and visiting once or twice a day during the lockdown. It brightened their days so much that they circulated a note throughout the building suggesting others do the same. There’s no data on how that worked out, but one of the original door-to-door visitors told me she knew of at least four others who picked up on the idea.
In an assisted living building, residents on several floors had music sessions, wherein they would open their doors, keep their masks on and sing. “Anybody could start something,” one reported; “the rest of us would join in. It was pretty awful, but we had a ball.”
On one urban block, a young man sat on his front steps during the lockdown and played jazz on his saxophone at 10 in the morning. Doors and windows opened; strangers waved.
Some of us simply walked. I walked for miles, daily as soon as total lockdown ended, across my beloved city. We nodded at each other; masked strangers passing on the strangely quiet streets. I never failed to be uplifted, just by our shared humanity.
We will have another pandemic. Hopefully not any time soon, but it will come. Maybe, along with the ongoing research into developing vaccines and protocols and financial solutions, we can address this existential reality:
A holiday-sized group of passengers was recently gathered in the waiting area of Terminal Two Gate 4, ready to board a flight from San Francisco to Bozeman, MT. The unmasked outnumbered the masked by roughly fifteen to one — this despite the Please Wear A Mask signs on every wall and the news full of stories about the “triple-demic.”
With an hour to spare before departure — the highway traffic and TSA Pre-Check gods having been with me — I put on my (masked) Ace Reporter face and undertook a random survey. This is only advised if you are extremely cautious in finding approachable respondents. It also helps to be a harmless grandmother type. And it is wise to approach only the genuinely bored, who are staring into space as if they wished someone might approach them with a survey question. You can always find them, even if you have to wander down to Gate E or Gate D.
Style is equally important. Ideally, the reporter wheels her carry-on to a vacant seat one or two seats away from the target, but an adjacent seat is okay, and standing in lines is perfect. Once you’ve settled quietly into position, allow an appropriate interval of time to elapse — say, 30 seconds or so, during which it’s good to stare into space yourself. Then, with your best behind-the-mask smile in place, you’re ready to begin.
“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” my survey opened. One potential respondent furrowed his brow, and another did the serious eyebrow-raising thing, but nobody told me to get lost — in so many words. Almost everyone seemed agreeable.
This survey wanted to find out why these good people were wearing masks, how they felt about so many non-maskers hanging around everywhere, and when they think masks will finally be history. Below are my key findings.
Nobody even wanted to guess about when the world will be safely unmasked. “2033?,” said a young woman in a University of Virginia sweatshirt. Perhaps.
A high percentage of mask-wearers have already had covid. “I’ve had it twice,” said one middle-aged woman in a furry black cap, “and you don’t want to mess with this virus. I don’t care that much about others right now. I keep the mask on for my own protection.”
Said a young man in the coffee bar line, “I have long covid; I can still barely smell the coffee. Those unmasked folks might think they’re fine, but I am not taking any chances.”
That focus on personal safety, as opposed to altruistic motives for mask-wearing, seems to have markedly increased. One or two survey respondents referred to “keeping all those others safe,” but without any particular animosity toward “those others” who might be unwittingly spreading germs.
Which was another finding of my research: hostility between maskers and anti-maskers, once almost palpable, seems to have faded a little. At least if you can believe the Gate F crowd. It was barely a year ago that an unmasked passerby almost declared war on my innocently masked self on a San Francisco street. My outdoor mask, which was mandated at the time, led him to conclude I had to be some Fauci-loving liberal commie covid freak.
Fear of encountering someone of that sort might have led me to skip the unmasked entirely. In any event, I left them alone. Going maskless is their business, I decided; and I avoid arguments great and small.
So I stuck with the fully masked. A family of five waiting for a flight to the east coast seemed happy to talk about masks, as well as holiday travel. “It just makes sense,” said the mom, whose eyes were sparkly above her jet-black mask. “The kids have gotten used to wearing them and I figure we’ll keep the habit until the risks are small and the viruses fewer.”
At which point the youngest kid looked up at me with the winning response, “We’re going to see our Gran.”
I am absolutely positively over Covid. I have reached the maximum exhaustion level where, as far as can be determined, everyone else in the U.S. also stands. Or lies, among those who are squashed flat under a purple cloud of weariness. We are all suffering from Covid Exhaustion.
Covid Exhaustion, the national condition, is not unlike Covid Fatigue, the diagnosis. Not having had Covid the accursed actual disease, all I can attest to are these symptoms that the WebMD people list: chronic tiredness or sleepiness; sore or achy muscles; slow reflexes or responses; poor decision-making skills; moodiness and irritability; short-term memory problems; poor concentration; inability to pay attention to surroundings or the situation at hand. Yep, I qualify, and I am not alone.
Things around the U.S. Capitol are “testy,” reports the New York Times. Well, yes, there is a certain amount of testiness loose in the land. And with the addition of testiness to exhaustion, that purple cloud is pretty much squashing us all. So in the public interest, this writer has compiled an Exhaustion Protocol. The following is not FDA approved.
WALK. When I reach the screaming stage with Covid Exhaustion, I walk out the door. And just keep going for two or three miles or more. You may not have San Francisco’s agreeable walking climate (or hills & views & destinations) but wherever in the world you are, there is something therapeutic about entering the outside world and slamming the door behind you.
SLEEP. All the answer sites for Covid Fatigue (which I consulted just to feel authentic about this) advise getting plenty of sleep. Since part of Covid Exhaustion involves regularly waking up at 3 AM worrying about the news, getting enough sleep requires creativity. Just think naps.
EAT. Most advisories about exhaustion recommend things like avoiding sugar, fats, alcohol etc, just about everything good. I say eat cookies and donuts, burgers with fries, salted caramels, shrimp tempura; drink white chocolate mochas and coffee milkshakes. You’re on your own with alcohol, which I quit a few decades ago, but I suspect martinis are probably good for Covid Exhaustion.
THINK, but only selectively. Do not think about whatever you just read in the newspaper or glanced in your news feed. Think about (a) lakes and forests, (b) soft music, (c) any of the first three solutions above, or (d) nice people. Which brings up:
VISIT. Friends in parks or parklets – those outdoor eatery places – or any pleasant outdoor space. I’m fine with anybody who wants to go indoors to see nice people, but if you meet them outdoors it is a guilt-free experience, and we try to avoid guilt because it leads straight back to Exhaustion.
REPEAT. If you’re still suffering, you might try rearranging the order of the above. I have personally found that WALK, EAT, SLEEP works pretty well with endless repetitions, as long as a couple of VISITS are occasionally interspersed. And/or, simultaneous applications such as WALK/EAT/WALK, if you strategize for white chocolate mocha along your route.
More than one news source (excluding Facebook, which, c’mon, is an anti-news source) is now reporting that Covid will become simply something we learn to live with. And to treat: add it to measles, flu, etc and perhaps the unvaccinated crazies who are pushing hospitals to the breaking point will get the #%&*#+ vaccine; and eventually we return to normalcy. So I propose the above regimen as a way to get us from crisis to acceptance.
(Ed. Note: At the end of this essay is the solution to today’s major problem. You may want to skip right to the end and just blow off eveything in between. Or not.)
One of my favorite memes, among those currently floating around, is this one: Nobody claim 2022 as your year. We’re all going to walk in real slow. Be good. Be quiet. Be cautious and respectful. Don’t touch anything.
Okay, but I’m worried about the no-touching business. Two lonnng years ago, the World Health Organization first identified the SARS-CoV-2 virus, now known as our familiar non-friend Covid. And we quit touching. Handrails, restaurant tables, countertops, each other. This made perfectly good sense, as the unknowns about this deadly invader outnumbered the knowns by about a zillion. No sooner had one exited the store with a spritz of hand sanitizer from the ubiquitous jars at doors than one entered the café where entry was prohibited without hand sanitizing again. We re-learned how to handwash to the tune of the birthday song, and shame befell anyone who was seen failing to scrub for the requisite 20 seconds. My mother would be proud. This country soon had the cleanest – or at least the most sanitary – human hands on the planet. All carefully not shaking each other.
Meanwhile, because we knew the invisible enemy lurked in our fellow humans, we began the social distancing thing – creating no-touch zones in check-out lines, along grocery aisles or at street crossings. Pretty soon it also became evident that Covid – and its innumerable invisible variants – hopped around from human to human via invisible air currents, so the next perfectly sensible thing was the mask.
For this new year, masks are us. Masks are just totally good things. Handy for proclaiming messages, honoring your favorite team, encouraging eye contact, upscaling your wardrobe – the concierge in my building, a hip young 30-something, has a collection of matching ties and masks worthy of the New York Times Style magazine. For the record, the older you are, the more wrinkles your mask conceals. The political thing is regrettable, since my mask protects you and your mask protects me and conceptually this creates a beautiful community.
But the touching thing. If we learned anything from all the quarantining and isolating (which will likely be happening intermittently for the foreseeable future) it is that humans don’t do well without being around other humans. Plus, we really need to reach out and touch someone.
One of my regular venues recently inched into in-person events, masked and distanced and please show proof of vaccination. On one’s nametag is your personal choice of dot: Red Dot = Please keep your distance. Yellow Dot = I’m good with elbow bumps and peace signs. Green Dot = Please, let’s hug! The Reds and Yellows are still in no-touch-land, and bless their hearts. I am a hopeless Green Dot person.
We’re all going to walk in real slow. Be good. Be quiet. Be cautious and respectful. I can go with that. Goodness, quiet, courtesy and respect are still plentiful today, and Lord know we can use a lot more of them. Wear a mask. Keep your distance as needed. But don’t touch anything?
“If you voted for Biden,” she wrote, “you are still my friend. If you voted for Trump, you are still my friend. We are all friends and neighbors, no matter what.”
Can you argue with that?
The writer is a 20-year-old college student; smart, pretty, popular and well-grounded. Someone who actually believes that business about loving one’s neighbor, and doing unto others as one would like done unto oneself. The problem is, she wrote those lines not on some old-fashioned email or piece of paper; she wrote them on Twitter – which commands a worldview of its own. It was posted months ago – eons, in Twittertime, but nothing in Twitterworld goes away.
Thus the post was discovered recently by an erstwhile friend who decided a lesson needed to be taught: This tweet clearly indicates that the writer is a Trump voter, the friend decided. No sensible non-Trump person could befriend a Trump voter, therefore the writer is a bigot and a racist and no longer welcome in any known friend group. Shunning followed. Friends took sides. Incredible amounts of time were wasted.
Yes I know, it all strains credulity. The re-tweeter is obviously unstable or worse, someone with a distorted self-image and too much idle time. Truth does not figure in, anywhere. But Twitterworld does not seek truth, only agitation and activity – which quickly develop once such stupidity begins.
Here is the question: In a world where Twitter rules, is there any hope for Truth? When words taken out of context can quickly become distorted and accepted as ‘fact,’? When scrolling through a couple of cellphone feeds passes for being informed and ‘friendship’ twists and turns with a tweet?
Maybe, if we ever slow down.
For a while it appeared the pandemic might teach us to slow down; but then came zoom and we zoomed ahead at breakneck speed. What might have been slowed down at in-person events was instead accelerated via digital and social media. But here is the gleam of hope:
What if, on spotting an argumentative tweet, post or whatever, one were to bite one’s digital tongue and NOT hit Reply? Or even better, not hit Retweet/Share/Re-post? What if, instead, we could cultivate the old-fashioned practice of speaking person-to-person? Even on an old-fashioned phone of some sort? What if we could revive the old-fashioned practice of saying, “Tell me what you mean, what you’re thinking.” The old-fashioned custom of cordial dialogue.
That would bring us all the way back to “You are still my friend.” A long, slow journey.
My friend M reports losing five pounds since starting a new weight loss/mindfulness program. The next door neighbor is training for a marathon in the fall. Actually, I’m signed up to do the (virtual) Rabun Ramble 5K, having plotted an acceptable route in San Francisco not quite as challenging as the real Ramble’s North Georgia hills, but who’s checking? Liz, one of my longtime best friends, is working with an editor on the memoir that many of us, not just her family, have been pushing her to do for years.
You’d think it was New Year’s.
Actually, that seems to be where we are: at the beginning of a new year, a new age. What kind of an age it will be is still anybody’s guess, as is how long it might be until we’re officially in it. All those unvaccinated people out there are sitting ducks for the coronavirus still roaming the country, and who knows how many variants are planning coming-out parties with their antecedents’ approval. It’s hard not to be grumpy about the unvaccinated. Granted, everyone has the right to choose not to be vaccinated, I suppose, but thank heaven for the millions who did get the vaccine and thereby made it possible for this New Year’s Day to dawn. Maybe some day the unvaccinated will at least find it in their hearts to appreciate the vaccinated.
Those of us who have been trying to keep the literal faith throughout these dark months, with a little help from Zoom and Facebook and YouTube, have found that being back in churches and synagogues is particularly celebratory. This writer’s return to the Presbyterian pews coincided with Pride Week and couldn’t have been more rainbow-filled. We were even singing from behind our masks – with the blessing (or approval, at least) of the City of San Francisco.
And then there is the indoor dining-out business. Friends of mine on both coasts are absolutely giddy about discovering old restaurants feared long gone, along with new eateries popping up all over the place. In San Francisco, to the dismay of parking space seekers and absolutely no one else, parklet dining – the street spaces taken over by beleaguered restaurants during the pandemic – seems here to stay. But being able to sit inside a quiet (OK, more often noisy) restaurant and enjoy a meal without the accompaniment of traffic noise feels like a new day indeed. “Restaurant X is back!” as the subject head of a Facebook or Twitter thread suddenly morphs into a list too long to comprehend as one friend after another adds one returned eatery after another.
New Year’s Day, of course, seldom dawns without some residual hint of New Year’s Eve and the old year behind. This old one left us with a lion’s share of hangovers: friends and loved ones taken by the virus, personal and congregate losses too many to count, an entire year of suspended existence. But here’s a pearl of wisdom dropped by a very wise friend in a recent Sunday sermon: “Happiness is to joy as whining is to lament.” Work on that one if you want.
Meanwhile, here’s to the happiest of New Years for M, for Liz, and all the rest of us.
One more strange thing during the dark days of Pandemia was my sense, much of the time outdoors, that I may have been the only person in San Francisco without a dog. Crossing the dog play area while doing my par course thing at Mountain Lake Park, skirting the similar space in Lafayette Park, or walking along any of San Francisco Bay’s limitless varieties of woods and beaches – I have felt acutely dog-less. Despite having had and loved a long list of family canines; I am currently without. And in recent times that has seemed particularly unseemly.
“You want to know how to stay busy in a pandemic?” my daughter Sandy said to me, early on; “get a puppy.” Scooter had joined her household as lockdowns were just beginning. Although theirs is a multi-dog household that leans toward rescues, Scooter was chosen because he was a purebred Catahoula Leopard Hound, and in a sense a replacement for Blue. Actually, no creature could replace Blue, who had been at my son-in-law’s side for 17 years before succumbing to cancer and the vicissitudes of very old dog age. In one of his countless obituary remembrances someone wrote, “Blue taught all the dogs at the lake how to be dogs.” But eventually Scooter, a multicolored Catahoula with one brown eye and one blue, was chosen to join the family.
While I was a continent away from the growing Scooter, I followed his progress throughout the pandemic on Facebook and on countless videos as he learned (more or less) where to dig or not dig, what to chew or not chew, all those niceties of canine upbringing that are far easier to watch online than to teach onsite. But they kept me entertained and Scooter’s family busy.
Two other dogs close to my heart were central to pandemic survival for their human moms and, by extension, me. Unlike young Scooter, Ringo and Delilah are both certified old dogs. I am partial to old dogs. This is partly thanks to my excellent late husband Bud’s book Old Dogs Remembered, but also because, well, we understand each others’ aches and pains and geezerly stuff.
Ringo, 14, whose official name is Ringo Dingo Django Durango, or RD3, was not partial to me in his youth. He customarily started barking about the time my car entered the driveway, and didn’t stop until he had sniffed and grumbled for at least five minutes. But we soon became cordial acquaintances, and by his middle-age and my confirmed geezerhood we were fast friends. One of Ringo’s primary daily occupations is patrolling the exquisite rose garden spilling down the hillside from his home. The back-breaking daily work involved in keeping the roses, fruit trees and other flowers flourishing perhaps doesn’t require Ringo’s attendance. But I’m satisfied that his company helped get my friend Margaret (the Ringo-namer and chief gardener) through the pandemic and constantly able to post beautiful photos of blooms to get me through.
But briefly back to Scooter. Sadly, Scooter went way too far in providing diversion from the pandemic. Several months ago, just before his family was heading back to the east coast from a winter vacation, Scooter went missing in the Wyoming forests near Jackson. No amount of searching, calling, whistling or pleading to the canine gods could get him to appear. So the family went mournfully home, finally accepting, at the end of the four-day drive (drives with large dogs take time) that he was likely dead of hypothermia in the sub-zero snows. Hypothermia, we all agreed, would not be that terrible because you fall asleep before you die. (Please don’t try to clear that up with scientific fact; it’s a comforting thought.) But the next day came a report of a Scooter sighting.
Thus began the most exhaustive search and rescue operation in this reporter’s long history of tracking operations of every sort. After flying back to stay with generous friends, Sandy took to getting up at 5 AM in order to ski out and fry bacon on camp stoves in areas where a sighting was thought to have occurred – the smell of frying bacon being something most of us, including dogs, as it happens – find worth following. No luck. She left articles of family clothing inside comfy kennels in the snow. Game cameras positioned near foodstuffs got some excellent photos of foxes – but no Scooter. Flyers were posted. Rewards offered. Drones flew around the forests to no avail. Even with the remarkable assistance of a Boise-based nonprofit called Ladies and the Trap, whose fit and determined volunteers devote themselves to finding lost pets and reuniting them with their humans – no luck.
In the end – or perhaps it’s still the late-beginning, or the middle – no one knows Scooter’s whereabouts but Scooter himself. Unless he has a secret admirer and protector. His family has settled into a three-possibility resolution: He did indeed die, quickly and relatively painlessly, of hypothermia in the Wyoming snow country. Or. Someone took him in and began to love and care for him; someone unaware of (or uninterested in) the microchip beneath his skin or the rewards posted for his return. Or. He will, one day, mysteriously reappear. Stranger things have happened, say the Ladies who Trap – and others.
And meanwhile, all along there has been Delilah the Wise. Delilah lives in Southern California with her family, which fortuitously includes my cousin Jan (we have Virginia roots; cousins extend in Virginia to the 7th in-law generation at least.) Jan, a comedian, keynote speaker, comedy writer, and author, was available – thanks to the virus cancelling every gig she had lined up – to help Delilah find her voice.
So. “Good morning, everyone! Delilah here,” said Delilah, brightly, on a regular basis, via Facebook and thanks to the miracle of modern video-manipulation. “I hope you’re enjoying the day.” (Or words to that effect.) Delilah was consistently anxious to get us all through the darkest days. Early on (3/26/20 to be precise,) this was one of her suggestions:
“Today we’re going to play a new game! It’s called Guess What’s in That Zip-Lock Bag in the Freezer! All you do is dig wayyyy back into the back of the freezer and pull out all of the zip-lock bags. So far, Jan has found one full of orange stuff, and another with, umm, chicken bones? Just eat whatever is in it! Enjoy your dinner and relax. Let me know how it goes.”
Thus did Delilah get us through week after tedious week. Sometimes it would seem even too much for Delilah herself – at which point she would scramble to the end of the sofa and commence digging a hole all the way to China. At last report, she had not yet made it through, but if a virus variant returns she may get there. Delilah, who her family says is perhaps a “pugzu” – some sort of pug/shih tzu mix rescued years ago from the Burbank Shelter, is somewhere around “12-ish” in dog years. With age clearly comes wisdom.
So with apologies to playwright John Patrick, to whom the original version is first attributed:
The pain of the pandemic surely made us think; what else was there to do? Thought makes us wise. And wisdom – especially the wisdom of old dogs – makes life bearable.
Recently I joined the ranks of the vaccinated. A great relief for an octogenarian, which I have been for quite some time. But, as has been or will be true for most citizens, about the time I rolled my sleeve back down I was beset by other emotions: guilt, angst and a nameless fear for my fellow citizens and the country at large. Not unlike the feeling one has when walking back to a warm home for dinner on a rainy day – and passing a motionless figure huddled in a doorway.
America is facing yet another division between the haves and have nots, the entitled and the shoved aside, but this one is a division between life and death. Here’s how that plays out, from the vantage point of one newly-vaccinated. I am also among the Haves: white, upper middle class, living in an expensive assisted-living facility. We the elderly are, of course, among the most vulnerable. Many of us have underlying health problems; all of us have the problem of being old. Which means we tend to die faster and in greater numbers if we get covid-19. It is admittedly scary to be old in a deadly pandemic. But should I be first in line? Should I have been ahead of my granddaughter’s teacher? Already my granddaughter has lost the experience of a normal senior year in high school. My friends’ grandchildren have lost other school years. How can we possibly weigh the safety of our own health against the hopes we have for our grandchildren’s future? If we simply concentrated on getting every teacher vaccinated and schools made as safe as possible, this might give our children and grandchildren at least a modicum of educational normalcy. Most of us would at least give that some thought.
But then again. Why shouldn’t essential workers be at the front of every line? Those driving the buses, cleaning the streets, making it possible at least for our cities and country to function. The janitors and cooks who make it possible for medical personnel to function. The vast majority of these bottom-level workers are Black or brown, so the vaccine divide feeds straight into the ongoing divide of racial and economic inequality. Even given the technological challenges of many seniors, most of us in the middle class at least have the skills and resources with which to check around for vaccine availability. But should that put us in line ahead of the less-advantaged who make getting in line possible? What about childcare workers? Millions of parents depend on these generally underpaid women (they’re almost always women) to look after their children. If childcare workers are somewhere far back in the line, their own lives are in jeopardy and the ripples of disrupted lives among their small clients and wider families are incalculable.
California Governor Gavin Newsom’s decision to prioritize vaccine distribution by age drew an immediate outcry from the disability community. How can this sizable demographic, which seems perpetually destined to fight one battle for survival after another, not be at the front of the vaccination line? Mobility problems beset many in this community; others have compromised immune systems that make them dangerously vulnerable. My lungs are compromised from being old, but they weren’t helped any by those years I smoked in my teens and twenties. Considered in this light, it seems hardly fair that I should be in line before my disabled neighbor.
It is also hard not to take the vaccine guilt business onto the global level, a peripheral part of the giant divide. America First isn’t going to cut it with this virus. I am enormously relieved to be vaccinated, and now I want my friends and neighbors – all of them, rich, poor, Democrats, Republicans to get vaccinated just as fast as humanly possible. If we reach herd immunity in the U.S., though, and the virus continues to rage across Africa, its mutant cousins are coming for us. Offering support for getting the vaccine into Ethiopian arms is less an altruistic wish than a matter of self-preservation. Would I have given up my dose for someone in Ethiopia? Or for anyone in the above demographics? Probably not. But this should not excuse me from wrestling with what is a national, universal ethical dilemma.